The Marketing Message Right Under Your Nose

Manipulation used to be the name of the marketing game. You know, Mad Men style. In some places it still is, of course. Whatever it takes to get someone to switch to your product or service is what you do. 

Since Coke and Pepsi are the same color sugar water, McDonalds and Burger King both sell cheap and ready-made food, and the only difference between Nike and Reebok is the shape of the swoop, what’s left?

Marketing, of course. When you can’t talk about merits of a product, you manipulate the customer instead. You create false and emotionally-laden stories to create a brand image. 

And it's worked. For decades. Quite simply, when you don’t have much to offer, manipulation works the best. If you can’t convince, cajole.

Mainstream marketing tricks include:

  • Scarcity (This offer ends soon!)
  • Fear-mongering (Avoid the flu with hand sanitizers!)
  • Life improvement (Wearing Nike’s will make you a better athlete! Buy this ab machine for iron abs!)
  • Lifestyle envy (You deserve to be rich! The Kardashian's wear this!)
  • Emotional manipulation (Drink Coors and have a good time with the ladies! Good moms keep a tidy house!)


Why Manipulative Marketing Is Fading

We brand ourselves with Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Pintrest everyday, so we’re less susceptible to being branded by others. We’re more cynical, and less likely to swallow the message that a pair of shoes will improve our basketball game, or a soft drink will help us meet friends.

In an increasingly noisy world, manipulation becomes increasingly less effective. Which is why it’s fading from view.

So what's taking its place? 


Upworthy and the Power of the Curiosity Gap

Upworthy is the company that generates the kinds of headlines that are hugely effective at getting people to click on them.  Part of the reason is their headlines create what is called a “curiosity gap”. (Buzzfeed, Huff Post, and now many others have jumped on this bandwagon.)

For instance, here's one of Upworthy's masterful headlines: “This piece of pie made me incredibly angry”. You almost have to see how it is possible for a piece of pastry to make someone angry, right?

This is certainly a form of emotional manipulation, but there is a lot we can learn from it in our own businesses. Because creating curiosity and anticipation in your headlines is simply good writing, even if the payoff is a little less than expected. 

But here's the thing: Upworthy, Buzzfeed, Huff Post, and the other Internet news sources out there only need you to click. They don't need you to buy, or to even hang out very long, ie, to read the article. Clicks = dollars, plain and simple. 

Which is great for them. But not much help for you


Transparency vs Authenticity

Transparency is letting people see how things really are. McDonald’s, for instance, recently became transparent about how they make Chicken McNuggets to counteract the partially-true story circulating online about “pink slime” making up their nuggets (they stopped using the pink, ammonia-treated stuff back in 2011). That’s transparency, and it’s smart.

Being authentic generally means not being full of shit, not lying, not deceiving, and not manipulating away from the truth and towards some BS to help and close a sale.

Big Pharma, who employed me as a copywriter for a few years and paid me a lot of money, at times has been guilty of being both inauthentic and non-transparent.

On some jobs I was asked to help create a disease so that they could market a drug for it. Legal, yes. Ethical, no. (I never took those kinds of jobs, for the record.)  One example: convincing parents that shortness was a disease that could be treated with human growth hormone ( 

As the owner of a small to mid-sized business, authenticity is critical.  Transparency is important as well, but to a point. You might not, for instance, want to share something that would scare off your customers, ie “I’m facing foreclosure on my home and desperately need people to buy my product to keep me out of bankruptcy.” That's a little too transparent.


Be Authentic. And Be Authentically Interested in Your Customers

Bottom line: be transparent and be authentic, but also be smart. Focus on your customers and clients, not just on yourself -- unless, of course, you're a pop star whose business is being you. But if your last name isn't Kardashian or Cyrus, you need to make it about your clients and customers.

We all know manipulative marketing when we see it. Your business, though, doesn’t need manipulation. Your best currency, your strongest communication is when you come from the heart, and speak to your passion, your expertise, and your utterly unique way of doing what you do.

Engagement and integrity are two of the most important factors in building trust.

Here’s How

  • Engage your customers/clients as often as you can. Pintrest, Twitter, Facebook offer you access to your potential customers like never before. Market your authentic life as a means to draw your audience in, and show them a new side of you and what you do in the world.
  • Use your former customers to sing your praises. Nothing sells like genuine satisfaction, like when your friend raves about a movie they just saw. Let your customers and clients rave about you, and don't be shy about asking for testimonials.
  • Use authenticity and transparency in service of your clients and customers. Use those things to speak to how you do your business in ways that help them. If you’ve faced a personal battle, for instance, you can relate it in the context of your work and how it has made you better at what you do.
  • Tell a story with your marketing message. 


Your Message is Right Under Your Nose  

The next level of your business starts with the right words. Great writing does something specific: it pulls a reader in, and makes them feel right at home. It seems effortless, and has a velvety quality around the edges that makes you want to get a little closer, look at little harder, investigate a little deeper.

How does it do this? Simple. It speaks to them, to their pain points, to their curiosity, to their hopes and dreams. It is, in a word, all about them. If you're not sure what that is, talk to your customers or clients. They'll tell you everything you need to know about why they chose you to work with, buy from, or recommend.

Keith Martin-Smith is an award-winning author, content strategist, and Zen priest. He is passionate about human connection, creativity, and evolution.